A 13 mile partial loop up to the one of Southern California’s most well-known peaks, with a wide range of Southern California geography. This route is just one of the 5 Sierra Club-recognized summit paths. There are more ways to climb this mountain than any other in the San Gabriels.
- Distance: 13.3 miles
– Elevation Gain: Apx. 3800 feet
– Time: 7 hours, with rests.
– Trail Condition: For the most part, very good. Even the unofficial looking parts of the Upper Winter Creek Trail are easy to spot and follow, as they mostly just follow ridgelines. There are a few sections on the Upper Trail that’ll scratch your legs a bit, but nothing you’d absolutely need long pants for. The Lower Creek Trail has significant amounts of poison oak, so watch where you’re stepping.
- How To Get There: Take the Santa Anita exit from the 210 toward Acadia. Keep on Santa Anita Canyon Road until it ends at Chantry Flats. If you can find a parking spot here, snag it and display your Adventure Pass. The Pack Station has overflow parking, but you’ll have to pay five bucks – even if you’ve already got a pass.
- Map It
- Ascending one of Southern California’s most well-known mountains.
- The full range of lower San Gabriel environments – from hot desert scrub to pine forests and a nearby river with waterfalls.
- Travel on historic old dirt toll road.
Extending Your Stay:
- When you return to Chantry Flats, a quick 3 mile add-on will get you to Sturtevant Falls and back – a worthy addition if you’re dying for a quick dunk in an icy pool.
- On Flickr.
Mount Wilson is a mountain that almost everyone in Southern California knows. Not for its scientific importance or geography, but because just about every single radio or television station in the "Southland" has some sort of tower set up on top of it.
To hikers, it’s that big mountain the middle of the front range that we skip because cars can drive right to the summit. There’s nothing worse than sweating your arse off for 4 hours to get to the top of the mountain and seeing a minivan full of fat kids with ice cream pull up, make a lot of noise, litter and leave.
I’m just sayin’.
Nevertheless, I drove to Chantry Flats, just north of Sierra Madre in the Angeles National Forest. It’s a great little jumping-off point for hikes, with easy access to several beautiful waterfalls. Unfortunately, that makes the place a complete zoo on hot summer days, and today was no exception.
I usually have to circle a few times before giving up and paying to park at the Adams’ Pack Station, but on this day I lucked out and nabbed a National Forest land spot. I packed up and headed up past the picnic areas to a small paved road.
Signs here point toward the Winter Creek Trail, and it’s very easy to spot if you stick to the road. You can take the first use trail shortcut, but after that you’ll want to stay on pavement until the Winter Creek trailhead appears on your right. You’ll want to ignore this trail for now and stay on the fire road.
The road is gently graded and in very good shape. It’s not necessarily the most interesting part of the hike, but I could see this being a great place to get outside and do a little bit of trail running. The road is long, winding, and mostly shadeless. But again, it’s not very steep – and you’ll be done with it in just about four miles.
(At the first major switchback overlooking the L.A. basin, it is possible to take a very steep use trail from behind a helipad. The trail runs along a firebreak on the ridge, and will cut off a large amount of distance but add a significantly quick elevation gain).
From the beginning of the ridge trail at the end of the road, I noticed I had a lot more work ahead of me before I got to the summit.
Here, the fire road ends, and you get onto a firebreak that makes a straight shot along a ridge with a few very steep climbs up some minor peaks and bumps. It is a gruelling, completely exposed trail that – when it’s hot out – will make you sweat gallons. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
As the trail cut through low brush and grasses, I had to stop and steal a few glances backward and the omnipresent haze, covering all of the sprawl of Los Angeles except for the distant mountains of the Cleveland National Forest.
I didn’t want to spend too much time on this section of the trail standing around, though. Not only was it getting toastier by the minute, but I was also being joined by a small cloud of various flying insects, who all seemed very interested in landing on every exposed piece of skin I had. After a while, the buzzing and swatting becomes a zen-like hiking trance, but it never really stops being irritating.
If I kept moving though, I could pretend there was a breeze blowing to cool me off. And with each peak in the trail, I got closer and closer to the actual mountain.
Finally, after about 2 miles of shadeless trekking, the fire break meets up with the Upper Winter Creek Trail at a memorial bench, and then takes a much-needed dive into some tree cover. Of course, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees in the shade, so I took a little bit of time out here to relax and cool down.
After a short stint in the woods, the trail meets up with the old Mount Wilson Toll Road, an historic early motorway that was used to haul observatory parts up the mountain, as well as delivering hikers and outdoorsmen to the forest’s interior before the Angeles Crest Highway existed. It’s got a pretty interesting history, but for the purposes of the hike it’s just a nice break from the steep incline of that firebreak.
Oh, and it’s got some good pine-framed views of the mountains to the east, like Twin Peaks peering out through the haze:
With the radio tower farm in clear sight and striking distance, the final ascent of the mountain went quickly …
… but I did stop to take a picture of a wooden stake that looked suspiciously like it had a smiling face carved onto it.
On the summit of the mountain, you’ll be greeting by a communications center, a giant parking lot, and a small picnic area near the observatory. There’s nothing even remotely approaching a feeling of remoteness or solitude here, but hopefully you knew that going in. Just think of how bad ass you’ll look to car-cramped sightseers when you emerge from the woods, sweaty and covered in dirt.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a great view of the urban sprawl below you. But far more likely, you’ll see something like this:
… which, for the record, is not smog. Just your run of the mill summer haze … with, ok, maybe a little bit of smog hidden in there somewhere. The view west toward the flattened summit of Mount
DisappointmentMarkham is more interesting, anyway.
After a short rest at the top, I made my way back down the mountain, this time taking the Lower Winter Creek Trail back to Chantry Flats. The Lower Trail was more wooded, more rugged, and much, much steeper than the Upper Trail. It’s also almost completely lined with poison oak on both sides. The scenery is nice, but there are a healthy number of switchbacks on the Lower trail … so if they bug you when climbing, I really don’t recommend trying to come up this way.
I do, however, recommend stopping at the Adams’ Pack Station when you’re done. If the weather was hot, you’ll probably need some liquid refreshment – and the staff is always friendly and happy to hear about your hike.
At the very least, you can show off your hikers’ dirt tan:
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